Effective punctuation starts with the writer making informed choices, not with blindly following a set of rules. To know how to punctuate, you need to know what you want to say and the best way to communicate it. The right punctuation choices help your reader understand your thinking. In most cases, it is best to follow the standard rules and conventions of punctuation, but judgment plays a key role. The nature of the sentence you compose and the ideas you intend to convey determine the punctuation of the sentence.
An independent clause has a subject and a verb and is logically and grammatically a complete sentence. My iguana smiled.
A dependent clause has a subject and a verb, but it is not a logically or grammatically complete sentence. Because I love animals
A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses; compound sentences are used to connect ideas that are closely related and are of equivalent importance.
My iguana smiled, and I smiled back.
A complex sentence has an independent clause plus additional information, often a dependent clause, that helps to develop the precise meaning of the sentence.
My iguana, which I've had for nine years, is a great pet.
Single Independent Clause
Use a comma to separate more than two verbs.
A style note: A string of simple sentences is choppy and monotonous, and it fails to show the relationship between ideas. Consider combining short, related sentences into a more concise construction.
choppy: Iguanas make nice pets. They take up little space.
better: Because iguanas take up little space, they make nice pets.
Exception: You may omit the comma after a short introductory element as long as the sentence remains clear. Use a comma if any confusion exists.
Soon after, my iguana disappeared.
We often combine two independent clauses into a single compound sentence, generally when the ideas are closely related and are of equivalent importance. There are several ways of doing so.
(coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet)
Exception: You may omit the comma if the two clauses are short and closely related, as long as the resulting sentence is clear.
Writers sometimes use a semicolon to separate two equal and balanced main clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction when the clauses are long or complex. Doing so makes the sentence easier to read.
(H.D. Thoreau qtd. in Fowler 496)
A style comment:
Readers appreciate variety. The most popular way of joining two independent clauses in one compound sentence, clause + coordinating conjunction + clause, can get monotonous.
Another, more concise way to join two independent clauses is to use a semicolon rather than clause + coordinating conjunction + clause.
Remember: the two clauses must be logically related and be grammatically complete sentences.
Another way to join two independent clauses in one compound sentence is to use a semicolon plus a conjunctive adverb. A conjunctive adverb can clarify the relationship between the ideas and add important meaning to your sentence.
(common conjunctive adverbs: consequently, finally, furthermore, however, likewise, moreover, nevertheless, therefore, thus)
Remember that readers appreciate variety. Just as with a string of simple sentences, a string of compound sentences may seem repetitive. Try varying the sentence structure.
A final note on semicolons:
Semicolons also are used to separate items in a series if the items themselves contain commas.
The typical colon error is to use one when no colon is needed. The section preceding the colon must be a grammatically complete sentence.
Correct use of colon
Successful fly-fishing demands specific knowledge: local insect species, their time of hatching, and stream conditions.
Successful fly-fishing demands: knowledge of local insect species, their time of hatching, and stream conditions.
If you omit the final comma, you may end up with a confusing sentence:
Punctuation is a tool to help the writer communicate clearly to readers. This handout discusses some important uses of punctuation; for a fuller discussion of punctuation, refer to a handbook on writing.
For specific advice on punctuation of quotations, see the Hamilton College Style Sheet or the Writing Center handout "Quotations" (my.hamilton.edu/writing).
Fowler, H. Ramsey, Jane E. Aaron, and Janice Okoomian. The Little Brown Handbook, Eighth Edition. New York: Addison, Wesley, Longman, 2001.
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